It was twenty one years ago today

If you’ve been following the series of posts looking back at old PC magazines (now with handy added “retro” tag) you might have noticed a common theme: from PC Plus to PC Magazine to Computer Shopper, they only included a couple of pages dedicated to games, or even “leisure software” in general. Games were what I was really interested in, I couldn’t care less about a round-up of spreadsheets or networking hardware, so why was I buying these serious magazines? Cranking the time machine back another five years or so…

My formative computing experiences started with a ZX Spectrum around the age of eight or nine, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to go out and buy a computer magazine; reading material of choice from the newsagent was Battle! Picture Weekly, and computer games existed alongside Action Man, plastic soldiers, Star Wars stickers, Transformers, MASK and whatever other tat was being pushed by Saturday morning cartoons. Nine year olds seldom made informed decisions based upon independently researched data when judging whether a particular toy, sticker collection or Spectrum game was “ace!” or indeed “brill!”, prevailing playground opinion ruled. Elsewhere I imagine little gangs of Spectrum or Commodore owners would get together, swap games and tips, and hurl abuse and conkers at rival Commodore or Spectrum owners, but circumstances conspired to stump popular playground opinion on computer games at my school. I had the ZX Spectrum with Starquake and Saboteur; Alan had an Amstrad CPC464 with Beach Head and Knight Tyme; Will had a BBC Micro (his dad’s estate agency had computerised with BBCs, so they had one at home too) with Repton and Track N’ Field; Pete had… something with Commando on it, maybe a Commodore 64. Tim had an Atari of some kind, possibly a 600XL or 65XE, with a wargame set on the Eastern Front that sounded amazing (armies and tanks and planes and stuff!), but went way over our heads with its hex-based map and unit symbols. Darren had an MSX, apparently, I had no idea what an MSX was.

It seems unlikely that there’d been a town meeting where our parents had taken Wikipedia’s “List of 8-bit home computers available in 1984” and assigned a different one to each family, if for no other reason than Wikipedia didn’t exist at the time, but you have to wonder. My other pet theory is the school was part of a FAST experiment into combating piracy. “Piracy rate: 0%. Experiment: successful. Possible problems with implementing plan on national scale: would need to increase number of different, incompatible 8-bit computer formats from 6 to 974,232 to ensure nobody knows anyone they can copy games from.”

I think I was slightly too young to really appreciate that first home computing boom, and the fragmentation with all the different systems meant none of them developed a “scene” or community at school that might’ve got me more interested. Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, on the other hand, could far more easily be swapped around, sweeping a bunch of us into Dungeons and Dragons and wargaming, so after the Battle! Action Force comic I moved on to White Dwarf rather than something like Your Sinclair or Crash, especially as the Spectrum was becoming increasingly temperamental when trying to load games via an old and creaky cassette player.

1988, and the arrival of our Amstrad PC1512, rekindled that interest in computing, and I trundled off down to the newsagents to find out more about this magical machine. The dedicated PC magazines looked a bit dull, but The Games Machine promised coverage of “Computer & Electronic Entertainment”, and as an added bonus had Operation Wolf on the cover, so I figured that’d do.

Issue 13 of The Games Machine, dated December 1988, cost £1.25 (DM 7.50, US $3.50, CAN $3.95) for its 154 pages. It opened with news of a “Console Fight” (illustrated slightly oddly with a photo of an M113 armoured personnel carrier): Nintendo and Sega were planning new 16 bit consoles, and “Console experts say only one or two machines can survive the fierce competition which will develop among five top models: Atari’s VCS2600, the Nintendo, the Sega, the PC Engine and the planned Konix Slipstream. Many tip the 16-bit Slipstream, which TGM exclusively revealed last month, as the winner when it’s launched next summer. Among the £130 Slipstream’s strong selling points will be digitised sound, RISC graphics chips, and an add-on hydraulic chair for less than £100 extra. Code Masters Operations Manager Bruce Everiss, whose software house is believed to have been planning a console last year, enthuses: ‘I think Konix has the potential to be another Amstrad. He [boss Wynn Holloway] has wreaked miracles.’ Even a spokesman for Micro Media, the sole UK outlet for the PC Engine, admits: ‘I’d expect the Slipstream to have an open road until 1990.'”

If you’re wondering why this wunder-console failed to destroy Nintendo and Sega, is a rather interesting read.

Back to the big players, Nintendo were suffering from slow software development and chip shortages with their “Nintendo II” (the SNES-to-be), while “Sega’s 16-bit Megadelve (sic) is expected to appear about this time next year with stereo sound, high resolution graphics and £49-50 games on two-inch discs”. The “Consoles: what they’ve sold” sidebar contained some rather interesting industry best-guesses of console sales of the time. Atari VCS2600: “claim of more than 3 million in UK since 1981 release. Interest slowed down mid-Eighties, now reviving.” Nintendo: “NESI claim 30 million worldwide but reliable reports say figure is closer to 20-25 million. Breakdown: 12 million in Japan (sales slowing down), 7 million in US (sales soaring – 10 to 12 million predicted by the New Year), 45,000 in UK, 25,000 in Scandinavia.” PC Engine: “Possibly up to 600,000 in Japan, certainly much less elsewhere.” Sega: “45,000 in UK”.

In the run-up to Christmas retailers were predicting Afterburner would be the big seasonal hit, with possible rivals including Operation Wolf, Thunder Blade, Double Dragon and R-Type, all coin-op conversions. On the hardware front Dixons and WH Smiths were going to be stocking the Atari ST, only Dixons were taking the Amiga, but Comet, Dixons and WH Smiths all offered the aged Atari VCS2600. The venerable Spectrum was beginning to fade, with Smiths dropping it to concentrate on the ST and VCS2600, but Comet, Dixons and Tandy were still planning to offer the +2 and +3 versions. Dixons were also the only place stocking the Commodore 64. TGM didn’t just cover games, the news also covered Sir Clive Sinclar launching a cheap satellite dish, the £149.95 Cambridge satellite receiver, going up against Amstrad for the first time since Sir Clive had sold the Spectrum computing brand to them.

In a preview piece, TGM visited Ere Informatique in Paris for a look at Purple Saturn Day, Billiard Simulator I, Teenage Queen (“… a strip-poker game, and if you don’t know how to play strip poker we suggest you ask your teacher”) and The Temple of Flying Saucers, which sounds frankly bonkers: “our hero, A von Spacekraft, is kidnapped by rebel electric toasters. And they want bread.” A couple of pages of assorted preview screenshots followed, lots of glossy ST and Amiga shots from games like F-16 Combat Pilot, Double Dragon, Thunder Blade and Motor Massacre, with a token Spectrum shot from AfterBurner to prove they weren’t entirely neglecting the 8-bits.

Again demonstrating its wider remit, Mel Croucher’s feature “Who Needs Reality Anyway?” was all about telecommuting, predicting “supermarkers will be hit by home teleshopping, as will high-street estate agents, travel agents, banks and all other businesses that will gradually be replaced by the interactive domestic screen.” Not bad, considering this pre-dates the World Wide Web by several years.

Arcades were still going great guns, a couple of pages covered news from the JAMMA/JAPEA Annual Amusement Machine Show in Japan of the hot games to come in 1989, Taito’s Chase HQ and Namco’s Splatter House being a couple I remember pumping 10p coins into.

Into the main review section, the Lead Review was Powerdrome, a 3D polygon-based racing game for the Atari ST that scored 93% (looked a bit blocky to me, but the stills probably didn’t do the sense of speed justice). Rocket Ranger for the Amiga got 90% for “Excellent graphics, breathtaking sound effects and sampled speech”, and really looked the business. Pac-Mania, also for the Amiga, got 92% for its arcade-accurate take on the isometric 3D pill-muncher. Multi-format games got separate scores per platform, so Operation Wolf got 89% on the Amstrad CPC, 87% on the Spectrum and 79% on the Commodore 64 (suffering a slight loss in graphic definition, and requiring pixel-perfect use of the gun sight), with 16-bit versions to follow later. The reviews section also included version updates, shorter roundups of previously reviewed games that had been released on new platforms, so Revenge of the Mutant Camels II that scored 63% for the Atari ST in issue 8 got 49% for the Amiga version update in this issue, earning criticism for the superior capabilities of the machine being used to only marginally improve the graphics.

After the reviews, another article looked at the world of pirates (yarr, me hearty etc.), talking to members of groups like The Kent Team, PCB and Divisional Distribution. Showing how little has changed over twenty years except the amounts, Bob Hays, co-ordinator of the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST) estimated that piracy amounted to £7.5 million a year in illegal games, but the pirates dismissed such figures, pointing out they wouldn’t have bought the game anyway in most cases, and some were more attracted by the fun and challenge of breaking copy protection rather than the game itself.

A few pages of playing tips offered a variety of tactics and passwords for various games, including Double Dragon: “When in dual player mode if you go up to a Putz and grab him from behind the other player can hit the unfortunate victim as many times as he likes with the whip. He won’t die, your points go up like mad (200 at a time) and you can do this ad infinitum”. And in the game, ah!

Branching out again from games there was a book column, on something of a cyberpunk trip with a couple of Bruce Sterling novels (Islands in the Net and a reprint of Involution Ocean) and the Sterling-edited anthology Mirrorshades getting the thumbs up, but Pat Cadigan’s Mindplayers received a more lukewarm response. Raymond E Feist’s Faerie Tale strained credibility, but was exciting enough to suspend disbelief. A roleplay column reviewed a couple of RuneQuest supplements, Gods of Glorantha (60 Religions for RuneQuest), and the Gloranthan Bestiary.

The letters page was mostly a fairly dull spat between Amiga and ST owners over who had the better machine, with some further fallout from an advert for “Psycho Pigs UXB” in a previous issue featuring a scantily clad model that presumably had attracted some complaints, this month featuring complains about the complaints (“just what is wrong with the human body?”).

Finally, the Back Bytes section included some handy reference material, including a guide to computer systems starting with the 32 bit Acorn Archimedes (£800+, with “over 200 releases for the Archimedes – but only 13 games at last count”), the 16-bit Atari ST (£300 for the 520STFM), Amiga (£400 for an A500 pack including software and TV modulator) and PC (£350 to “well over £4000”, with “… more games than you might expect, largely because of the many PC game-players in America. However, poor display and sound are problems and PC-compatiles are not recommended if you’re only into games, graphics or music”), the 8-bit Amstrad CPC (£299 for the CPC464 with colour monitor), Commodore C64/C128 (£150 for the C64 and ten games) and Sinclair ZX Spectrum (£139 for the +2), and finishing off with the Nintendo Entertainment System (£130), PC Engine (£175) and Sega Master System (£80, including light gun) consoles.

An excellent and laudable magazine, then, covering all facets of gaming with a few books and RPGs thrown in, everything an aspiring geek could want, right? What on earth possessed me to eschew it the following month for a copy of PC Plus with a picture of a networking kit on the cover? The basic problem was page 37, the index of reviews that listed them by system. Spectrum: 6 games; Amstrad CPC: 3 games; Commodore: 7 games; Atari ST: 13 games; Amiga: 13 games; PC: 4 games; Sega: 4 games. The 4 PC games were Bubble Ghost (79%), a dull looking platform-ish thing that had been out on the ST for a year, Captain Blood (68%), a couple of paragraphs pointing out it wasn’t as good the ST or Amiga versions from 6 months back, The Games: Summer Edition (76%), a slightly updated Daley Thompson-esque waggle-fest and the only brand new review as opposed to a version update, and Rasterscan (44%), a hasty 8-bit port. Meanwhile, the cover story of “Watch out, solider! Kill! Kill! Kill!” referred to Operation Wolf plus two distinctly influenced-by-(as in shamelessly-ripped-off) Operation Wolf games, POW for the Amiga and Veteran for the Atari ST. That was what I wanted, all-action mowing down hordes of enemy soldiers, not a ghost blowing a bubble. It felt like The Games Machine was actively taunting me, waving these shiny graphics and action packed games in my face while I was stuck with four shades of grey and the odd “beep”. Prominent in the middle of the magazine was a double page advert for the Atari ST, advertising the £399.99 “Super Pack” including £450 worth of software: Marble Madness, Test Drive, Beyond the Ice Palace, Buggy Boy, Eddie Edwards Super Ski, Ikari Warriors, Ranarama, Thundercats, Zynaps, Quadralien, Starquake, Chopper X, Roadwars, Xenon, Arkanoid II, Wizball, Black Lamp, Genesis, Thrust, Seconds Out, Summer Olympiad 88 and Organiser Business Software. What wouldn’t I have given for a pile of games like that; the magazine felt like 150 pages of Jim Bowen saying “here’s what you could have won…”

Looking back, it’s not quite that bad; many games promised a PC version to come, and there was even a foretaste of things to come with a review of the Amiga version of Ultima IV that had been out for the PC since 1986, but that was scant consolation. Nope, it was PC Plus for me after that, it came with a cover disk that had the odd game on it, and at least I’d only be bored by a spreadsheet face-off rather than driven mad with jealousy.

6 thoughts on “It was twenty one years ago today

  1. unwize

    My brother got the Super Pack for Christmas around about that time, and I remember the majority of those games very fondly.

    Summer Olympiad was notable for having a remarkably high diving board:

    Not one for the belly floppers!

  2. pjharvey

    Ah, that Double Dragon tip takes me back to when hints and tips for games were essentially exploiting buggy code, as well as intentional cheat modes. They could be printed in monthly magazines because there was no internet to serve as a delivery channel for patches.

    As for different machines, I remember a friend at the time having the Dragon 32 and I wanted one too, it was so cool. My mum was persuaded by the salesman to get a C=64 instead. GOD BLESS THAT SALESMAN AND MY MUM.

    Also also, Starquake was awesome. I’m coming over all nostalgic, which is the last thing nostalgia needs right now.

  3. Capn John

    “smeggle” is my word verification word? I think someone’s got a touch of the Red Dwarfs ;)

    Ahh, good old Double Dragon. A mate and I used to be deadly on that. We were a brilliant team, and loved the double-team moves most of all. One of us would grab a bad guy and hold him while the other went to town with the baseball bat, or the dreaded reverse double-elbow strike. Why it hit the guy twice I don’t know, but it did, and it sometimes hit your mate, too >:) Likewise (IIRC) use of the baseball bat had to be judicial and required a delicate touch of the punch button to launch a gentle swing to the midriff, because a more exuberant press resulted in a full-blooded swing that would lay out both foe and ally in one blow. Mwah hah ha!

    We used to be able to get through Double Dragon on just one credit each, until the arcade owners paid off the programmers who introduced the spears and moving brick walls near the final boss that resulted in almost instantaneous death, and required you to feed in 20c coins one after the other if you wanted to beat the frickin’ game! (That was back when frickin’ was a four-letter word ;)

    Ahh, those were the days. Thanks for the nostalgia :)

  4. Zoso

    Double Dragon even made a half decent PC conversion on a CGA 8086, though I think it lost some of the subtlety… The dreaded reverse double-elbow strike basically wiped everyone out so you just ran around doing that all the time like a particularly vigorous re-enactor of Python’s “Nudge Nudge” sketch…

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